No Informal Words, Please. But Why?

ONE of the greatest disservice English language teachers in school can do to young minds is to taint the value of informal words. No informal words, please. Stay away from informal words. The poor students hear so much of this, they’ve all developed a kind of paranoia, a built-in lexical thermometer that makes them cringe at the sound of informal words. Take “crazy” or “junkie” for instance, or phrases like “two thumbs up.” Don’t ever dream of suggesting words of this flavor if you’re ever working on an essay with them. No, these words can’t—I mean, cannot—appear in written form.

That simply means you can’t portray Donald Trump as “crazy,” let alone “loony” or “wacky.” You’ve just killed three word choices right there.

You also can’t describe someone as a computer or gaming “junkie” or whatever kind of “junkie.” Sad, because that was exactly how the Wall Street Journal characterized Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the Saudi business magnate, in an article I read a long time ago: media junkie.

You’re also prohibited, in a film or a book review, to buzz with “two thumbs up” excitement. Better for you to stay with safer, more proper adjectives: excellent, poignant, moving, heartrending, or whatever else—so long as it’s not informal.

I hear you, Ma’am. I got you, Sir!

Nevertheless, I just had to hear it from a real Ma’am, an old school friend and a long-time Head of English at a primary school, someone you wouldn’t want to mess around with (now, is that informal?). I was genuinely curious what her take was on contractions and informal words.

“We expect a certain level of formality in our students’ writing,” came the stiff, stilted response. 

If you want to talk formal, let’s talk formal then. I’ll share six examples of informal words appearing in a newspaper environment, which couldn’t possibly be any less formal than a school essay:

Informal Word #1: crack up

Mrs. Obama and Mr. Bush have had a few such memorable moments. In July in Dallas at a memorial service for five police officers killed by an Army veteran, the two held hands while singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” When Mr. Bush began swaying to the music, Mrs. Obama gamely let him swing her arm back and forth. At one point, as the choir sang “glory, glory hallelujah,” he turned to her in a burst of enthusiasm, causing the first lady to crack up, despite the solemnity of the occasion.

For Some, Bush-Obama Rapport Recalls a Lost Virtue: Political Civility
By Mark Landler
The New York Times
September 24, 2016
.

Informal Word #2: crackpot

When a Crackpot Runs for President
By Nicholas Kristof
The New York Times
September 15, 201
6
.

Informal Word #3: wackiest

One of Donald Trump’s 100 wackiest ideas is that climate change is a hoax fabricated by China to harm America.

Temperatures Rise, and We’re Cooked
By Nicholas Kristof
September 10, 201
6
.

Informal Word #4: geeky

Even technology companies led by Apple, the most design conscious in the industry, have floundered in creating products that appeal beyond their geeky base. The Apple Watch offers a wide range of straps, including a collection handmade by Hermes artisans in France.

The Race To Make Wearables Cool
By Hannah Kuchler
Financial Times
September 23, 201
6
.

Informal Words #5 & #6: icky and sourpuss

“Perfect,” says the waitress in another restaurant, and she says it after each person’s selection of an appetizer and entree, as if we’ve managed to home in on the only out-and-out winners in a tough crowd.

If we’d chosen differently, would she have made an icky expression, a sourpuss face? Would she have warned us that the squab tartare with candied jalapeños and a botulism emulsion was imperfect — and possibly ruinous?

Tonight, Patronizing Language. Enjoy
By Frank Bruni
The New York Times
November 7, 2007

You could well tell me that these star journalists have the license to use such words, while you don’t. I wish you wouldn’t go there. The larger point to our even bigger word picture is this: all words exist for a purpose, and every single word can’t be perfectly served by its sibling synonym(s) or paraphrased out of its own rightful existence. The universe of words is democratic, and all the world’s a stage where every word has a part to play. The question is not whether a word is inherently good or bad, but whether it’s the right word for the sentence.

When teachers smear informal words, they are effectively practicing word discrimination—discrimination not in the sense of good taste and discernment, but prejudice and judgment. They also fail to give students the opportunity to work at grasping nuance and tone, a skill that must necessarily come with practice, practice, and more practice, and an open mind. Depriving them of the chance to intuit and savor the right words is like stripping their tongue of taste receptors. If informal words had a flavor, how could they possibly taste them, let alone appreciate them?

Imagine the lost experience, the deprived insight!

That General Paper teacher, who long ago chastised my student for writing “gripe” instead of “complain,” had seared in her mind (and mine) an image of an angry scrawl (infml!!!) scratched so violently on the margin of her script. What was wrong with “gripe” though? It was a perfectly chosen word that felt more sullen and spoiled, more right than “complain,” the way she had meant it. You can’t help wondering, when teachers get all prickly this way, that they’re just being word racists.

Back off, Gripe, you’re not our kind, so get out!

Not all teachers, I’m sure, are of such a violent bent, but that squeamishness with informal words is certainly out there. So let them dabble in informal diction, you challenge me, but what if they picked the wrong word and hit the wrong note? So, let them! Let them err! No lessons were ever learned without mistakes. Better for you, the teacher, to make comments that boost their confidence rather than scold. Surely, a warmer and kinder “too informal” is better than a flat-out dismissive “informal,” peppered with an exclamation mark or two or an ultra-enthusiastic three. Or you could go for the more neutral and bracing “WW,” or “wrong word.”

Let’s not demonize informal words. They aren’t outcasts. George W. Bush did make Michelle Obama crack up. That may be the same as saying he made her laugh—but not quite.

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